Werner Forman—Adventures in New Zealand

Forman has Another Brush with Death

Guest post by ASPP member Julian Jackson

This is the fourth in the series of articles by ASPP Member Julian Jackson about Czech-born photographer Werner Forman (1921-2010), who spent his life travelling the globe photographing ancient artifacts, art and cultural heritage, as well as breath-taking landscapes. In 1992, he was in New Zealand photographing the Maori and their homeland.

A massive road accident doesn’t stop Forman from going to take photographs. © Werner Forman Archive.

A massive road accident doesn’t stop Forman from going to take photographs. © Werner Forman Archive.

Photographer Werner Forman loved Oceania—the great Pacific Ocean, and the visually unique lands of Australia and New Zealand. Traveling there in 1992 to create images for his book, New Zealand, he had another brush with death. This one was less mystical than nearly drowning, as recounted here.

He was driving his car to photograph Mount Egmont—or Taranaki as it is known to the Maori—at dawn. He liked the subtleties of light that occur when the sun is low in the sky, either rising or setting. Forman was unaware of the local custom of transporting wooden houses to new sites by night on huge articulated trailer-trucks. During the hours of darkness there are fewer cars on the road… except for hapless photographers, it seems. Forman must have unknowingly turned into a space between two giant vehicles carrying homes on trailers. In the darkness he saw something large in front of him and decided to overtake it. The truck sped up, refusing to be overtaken. Suddenly a bridge loomed ahead. The vehicle moved into the centre of the road, trapping the car under the overhang of its trailer, pulling it along. Traveling at 80 kph (about 50 mph), the photographer was faced with a split-second decision: either hit the bridge, or squeeze further under the trailer, between the eight wheels ahead and the twelve behind!

After the bridge, the trailer moved back to the left lane. Forman took the opportunity to try to extract his car from under the trailer. The driver must have been astonished to see headlights emerging from under his trailer. He braked sharply, the truck jack-knifed, and the house on top started to disintegrate, showering Forman with debris and crushing the car roof.

Somehow Forman managed to bring his vehicle to a stop. Soon a traffic policeman arrived, expecting to find a corpse. Forman was alive, pushed down into a tight ball under the crushed roof of his car, held there by pieces of timber, bruised and shaken, but otherwise unhurt. The timber was removed piece by piece, and the roof levered up. Forman found his camera was damaged but still operable. He got back into his car, and head craned sideways under the still depressed roof, went on to take his photo of the mountain, seen here below.

Taranaki (also known as Egmont), is New Zealand’s largest andesitic stratovolcano. © Werner Forman Archive.

Taranaki (also known as Egmont), is New Zealand’s largest andesitic stratovolcano. © Werner Forman Archive.

While not all of Werner Forman’s exploits are that unusual, he did spend eight decades of his life moving around the world, taking extraordinary photographs of ancient cultures and civilizations. He was co-author and sole photographer of over 80 books, which are exclusively licensed by his archive. He died in 2010 but his legacy lives on in the work he created.

Werner Forman Archive houses a superb collection of images of the remarkable art of the people who inhabit the vast stretch of islands in the South Pacific Ocean—Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia and New Guinea and the art and artifacts of the Maoris of New Zealand and the Australian aborigines.

There are landscapes and masks, headdress, ancestor figures, ceremonial carvings, ritual objects, canoe prow figures and much more which have been photographed in numerous private collections and museums throughout Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain.

All pictures copyright Werner Forman Archive.

Julian Jackson is a writer with extensive experience of picture research, whose main interests include photography and the environment. His website is www.julianjackson.co.uk. He also runs a Picture Research by Distance Learning Course www.picture-research-courses.co.uk. Linked-in profile.

In case you missed them, here are Julian’s previous articles on Werner Forman written exclusively for ASPP.

Werner Forman Archive Uncovers New Images, July 9, 2014
First Travels by Werner Forman, August 11, 2014
Further Adventures of Werner Forman, September 17, 2014